I want to tell you the story of one of the young adults who has been coming to the center, but I will not use her real name. I will call her Mariana.
I will never forget the first day she came to the Center. It was Summer. We were still in our sweating like crazy stage. We had not been here for very long. She came early one evening. There were no other young adults there yet.
David was busy working on some missionary reports and I was doing some planning. She burst through the door with the energy and vibrance of a young actress making an entrance. I will never forget her first words: "Io sono inattiva!" (I am inactive.) She wanted to make this known to us before she even told us her name. I felt like saying, "And I am Sister Lisonbee, nice to meet you, inactive."
She told us she had heard about the Center being opened and wanted to see if she could talk to some of the other young people to see if they could help her find a job. Since her main motive for coming was for this, I knew that she may only come this once and not ever again. I felt the kind of panic I think is not uncommon to missionaries. It comes from realizing that you may have only one chance to possibly influence someone's life for eternity. This sense of panic is heightened by the fact that you often only have about a 30 second window to do this and it is in another language. Part of me wanted to run down the hall and jump out of the window just like the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz. To say that my Italian was rough, would be a kind description. I knew that Elder Lisonbee had to get those reports done asap so I figured I was pretty much on my own. I prayed so hard for help.
Mariana and I proceeded with the regular small-talk. We visited as she waited for others to arrive that could maybe help her with her job-hunting. I think it was then that I realized the great secret to communicating in a foreign language or in any language for that matter. It is this: All you really need to be able to do is to understand enough key words about what someone is saying so that you can ask an interested question. This can work even if you understand very little. Believe me, I know. The question you ask then triggers them to talk more about themselves and their life. Phrases such as "Really" or "Tell me more" or "that is really something" are invaluable. So Mariana began to tell me about herself. I was able to pick up on some key words she said like "art, art history, school" to keep the conversation going (thank heaven it was a subject I have a great interest in myself) so I was able to ask enough questions to learn more about her. I found out that she is a gifted artist studying scene-design here in Milan. We were able to pull up her website on the computer and see some of her work.
I liked Mariana from the moment I met her. She is vibrant, has a lot of passion for life and a flair about her that makes me smile. There is a child-like quality about her. We had a nice visit. She said she had to leave before any of the others came, but that she would try again another night. I hoped and prayed that she would come again and that there would be others around to help with the conversation.
Well she did come again. And she has continued to come regularly for 5 months now. Even after she found a job. It is because she not only found a job lead at the Center, but she found friends. She found the Spirit that had been absent from her life. She found the faith she had once had as a child when she had dreamed of one day serving a mission and marrying in the Temple.
In the months following her first visit I learned more about how she had "lost" those things. She had a boyfriend who had been taking the lessons but he had a falling out with the bishop and they stopped coming to Church. One of the nice things about the Outreach Center is that it isn't "Church." It may be in the church and while we strive to have one feel the same spirit there that one feels in Church, it is more casual and less threatening. It has been at the Center where she has been able to re-connect with her testimony by attending Institute, participating in Family Home Evenings and having fun playing games with new-found friends. It makes me think of something Elder Malm from Sweden said when he came to Milan to do training on the Outreach program. He said that so often one doesn't really lose their testimony they just forget that they have one. We just need to remind them of what they already know.
Mariana went away during the Christmas break and we didn't see her for a few weeks. We were worried about her. Then, once again true to form, one night several weeks ago she came bursting through the door. But this time instead of announcing to us her inactive status as she had 5 months earlier, she announced, "I am so proud of myself. I kept the word of wisdom over Christmas while many of my friends and family around me did not."
She is now in the process of moving into a new place and starting her life anew and going to Church again. She told me that she felt bad that she was in her late twenties and felt that she had not done what she was supposed to have done with her life by this point. She said her age as if she was a very old woman. I assured her that she had so much of her life ahead of her and that the good choices she was making would make all the difference and that the important thing was what she does from here on out. In the last few months we have watched her go from a person who was a little defensive and overly sensitive and discouraged to someone confident and hopeful.
The funny thing is that I didn't learn until quite a long time after our first visit that she speaks English! When I found this out, I thought about how unnecessary was all my struggle to speak with her when we first met. But maybe it was for the best.
Maybe it is a good thing to have to desperately plead with the Lord for inspiration while we are talking to someone. Maybe it is a good thing to have to listen so intently you think your head may explode to try to understand not only what a person is saying but also what they are feeling. Maybe it is a good thing that when you are learning another language you usually understand it before you can speak it. Maybe it is a good thing to be forced to listen more than you talk. I guess these are all good things for me to remember no matter what language I am speaking.
At some point though, we must open our mouths. Especially in missionary work. Elder Lisonbee continues to be an inspiration to me in this regard. He has gotten into the habit of walking over to the fruit stand that is by the Church to pick up some fresh fruit for us to have at the Center. They have exceptionally good Clementine mandarin oranges and bananas. He has been able to talk to the owner of the stand about the Church and the man has accepted the invitation to come to Church with his wife and to meet the missionaries. Sounds like a good exchange to me - Clementines for the fruits of the Gospel!
Below are some pictures of the great YSA and the Center:
I like this one because it shows a cross-section of what should go on at an Outreach Center: We see a young sister missionary talking with a non-member, we see the young people visiting and playing games, and we can see one of them working on an Italian missionary website on the computer.
Below is pictured the Destro brothers working on an Italian website about the GANS.
The link is http://gansmilano.wordpress.com/
Below are some of the lovely YSA women with two non members and the sister missionaries
After the Singles Ward meeting